Tire au flanc (Jean Renoir / France, 1928):

The artiste’s blessed imbecility, "toujours le poète," the greatest weapon against a regimented military system. The opening unspools under the dizzy influence of Laurel and Hardy, banana peels on marble floors and ripped tuxedo and all: Jean Renoir spills gravy on the Army officer’s uniform and throws benzene in the fireplace, and sends the affluent dreamer (Georges Pomiès) with "a delicate constitution" and his rambunctious valet (Michel Simon) off to the barracks. Life in the encampment is a bumpy one for the moonstruck poet who saunters over to the practice dummy and shakes its hand after a gentle bayonet poke. In solitary like Gabin in Grand Illusion, he dodges rodents while outside his fiancée (Jeanne Helbling) is romanced by the roving-eyed lieutenant (Jean Storm): "Prisons are much less unpleasant than I had imagined!" The major maneuver is a march through the woods that has the gasmask-wearing soldiers slipping down a hill, the major battle is a pillow fight around the butler’s girlfriend (Fridette Fatton), both sequences filmed for the benefit of Vigo. (The charming handwritten intertitles are adorned with doodles.) It all culminates in slapstick fraternité at the colonel’s party, with Pomiès decked out in Pan’s pelts and Simon dangling above the stage lights in Sylphian drag while the bully unleashes a foretaste of Jacques Tati’s fireworks. Renoir concludes with a jubilant little stretto out of A Midnight Summer’s Dream, a triple wedding where a tracking shot puts master and servant not upstairs and downstairs but side by side. With Félix Oudart, Louis Zellas, and Kinny Dorlay. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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